Composer Interview – Kevin Riepl

kevin riepl composerDo you have any formal musical training?

Well if by formal training you mean the 4 or more years of school at a conservatory or any degree in music, then no. I am also not 100% self taught either. I have had many a teachers of the years and a lot of it has been personal one on one training. I did attend the Mannes College of Music in NYC for a few semesters to study theory, composition, and orchestration.

Do you think this influences your compositions in any way (positively or negatively?)

Without a doubt I think this definitely influences how I write in a positive way. I believe any training someone gets in any field they work in is beneficial to their craft.

What would you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses?

I think my greatest weakness is my ability to shift easily from being creative to being a business person/agent for myself.

At my stage in my career, I am currently agentless. This means when I am not writing or creating…I am out there busting my hump to make connections and start new relationships. Both processes, being creative and networking are some what exhausting when you give both 150% of your effort. I am not saying I am weak at either, it’s more of the ability to quickly shift from one frame of mind to the other efficiently. On the other hand, I think my strengths lie in the ability to nurture working relationships and being very easy to work with.

On a musical side, I think my strengths lie in really having the ability to be versatile in many styles and genres. Aside from that, I feel one of my assets is being able to listen and really understand where a director, producer or game developer is coming from when describing their story, idea, or game.

Who would you consider to be your musical influences?

Ok, I get this question a lot, and I hate to have a generic answer…but there are tons of things, people and composers that have influenced me over the years. Musically I can list them for you in a nutshell I suppose. I’ve always loved the classic film scores by Herrmann, Rózsa, Steiner, Korngold, North, Waxman, Williams, & Goldsmith. I also have had great admiration for British film composers, John Addison, William Alwyn, Ron Goodwin.

Non-film music influences would include, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and the like. Some modern artists I listen to currently are The Crystal Method, Dead Can Dance, BT, Keane, The Republic Tigers, Marilyn Manson, Killswitch Engage, Marilyn Manson and of course all the goodies of early Metallica, Megadeth, & Testament…those last three are guilty pleasures. Some modern film composers that I find inspiring are, Carter Burwell, Charlie Clouser, Teddy Shapiro, Marco Beltrami, Nathan Barr, and Tyler Bates.

Do you compose full time, or as a side project/hobby?

Composing is my full time gig. Some times I really wish it can be a hobby as well. There are so many things in my head, musically speaking, there is just not enough time in a day to bring all of them to life.

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What equipment do you use?

Currently my main system is a Mac G5 Dual 2.7 8G Ram. I have 4 Windows computers running as workhorses for sample libraries.

Whats your main DAW, and how do you find it?

At the center of everything is MOTU’s Digital Performer 5.1. As of now, I have no issues with it. It is a solid piece of software and handles everything I throw at it. Of course there a flaws that I come across here and there, but for the most part I really have no problems with it.

What VSTs do you use, and what are your favourite ones?

I use anything and everything I can get my hands on J . As with many composers I am a big fan of the East West libraries. Mainly the Platinum Orchestra library, Storm Drum, Ra etc etc. Project Sam, Sonic Implants. I am a huge fan of Eric Persing and his Spectrasonics instruments, namely STYLUS RMX. I swear by this VST. If a working composer does not have this amongst their arsenal of tools…I suggest dropping everything and go get it.

Do you play any instruments? If so, what do you play and for how long? How have they influenced the type of music you make today?

I play the Piano, Guitar, and Trumpet, efficiency of each is in that order. I have been playing each of these instruments since elementary school and was pretty sufficient on each around my high school years and after…but once composing became my main gig, having less and less time to practice my chops inevitably made my performance take a back seat.

I am not so sure being able to play these instruments has influenced my actual technique or style of composing.

Whats your favourite instrument that you own, and that you would like to own and why?

Currently my favorite instrument now is my Saz, a persian stringed instrument. It’s so simple, exotic and awesome sounding, even if you just sit there and strum a few chords. Some day I would love to get an Accordian and become proficient at it.

Whats your favourite piece of software and why?

I think it has to be STYLUS RMX as I stated above. It is an extremely versatile, composer friendly, and customizable sampler for rhythmic, percussive and melodic ideas. Aside from that, I would have to say Digital Performer, being at the center of my system I can’t leave it out.

Whats your favourite piece of hardware and why?

Not sure I have a favorite piece of hardware. The fact that all my hardware is currently working right now, is my favorite J

How important do you think it is for a composer to have his own style and why?

I am 50/50 on this one. For the most part, yes I think a composer will benefit and succeed from having his own style. There are tons of composers out there that have ‘their style’ and they are immediately recognizable and called upon because of their well known style. Then there are guys out there who you can’t pick out of a line up, because they mimic a certain style.

This has nothing to do with whether the latter is good or successful or not. Take Debney for example. He is an extremely well versed and talented composer and he can pretty much do anything and do it well.

To me, I don’t know or can explain what his ‘style’ is, but he is uber-successful and extremely versatile. Regardless of your style If you have one or not, you need to be proficient at your craft.

I am just not a big fan of guys out there that mimic another composers ‘style’, and that’s basically all they’re riding on.

You get a lot of guys out of the Zimmer camp that do this. And now since that is the case…there are a slew of upcoming or young composers trying to break into the game industry relying on that style alone. My point is, if you don’t have your own style, then you need to be extremely versatile with every other style out there and do it damn well.

Are you a multi-genre composer? Or do you like to specialize in one particular area?

I would like to think I am a multi-genre composer. My body of work might not show for it, but I love to write in every style imaginable. The Nancy Drew and Shrek Video Games I worked on really allowed me to tackle many genres for their music. My site has a decent amount of material from these games for you to check out, ranging from jazz, big band, rock, metal, European influenced jazz, etc etc.. However I think I enjoy writing dark hybrid music the most.

What appeals to you about creating your style of music?

When it comes to the dark hybrid music, which usually consists of a mixture of orchestral, electronic and sound design, I find it all to comforting to create. I’ve always stated, that when creating this style of music, I occupy space in the recesses of my mind and it really allows me to detach myself from reality, and I think that’s why it’s so much of a guilty pleasure.

The film music/video game music genre is dominated generally by males rather than females – what are your thoughts on this?

Personally or professionally I don’t have any thoughts on this honestly. Males dominating the composing world, seems to be the case even throughout history as far back as all the baroque period composers, and I am not sure why that is. It’s a good question and I would welcome anyone to take on the duties of doing a study on such a topic, because I would love to know if there is something that is gene, or gender related to the process of composing music.

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What types of media have you composed for and which is your favourite?

I have composed for three types of media, Video Games, TV, and Film. I love them all and really can’t say I have a favorite. There are things about each that are my favorite. For instance, with video games, I love the relaxed schedule of the mile stones/deadlines and a lot of the time, the freedom of writing a piece of music not restricted by hitting certain cues. For TV, I love the grueling week to week schedule that is required. When working on the Disney cartoon Brandy & Mr. Whiskers, I needed to write and produce 20 minutes of music in 4 days. The first season was tough, but by the middle of the second season I was averaging 10 minutes of completed music a day.

I am not sure what it was, but the tight schedule really gets your creative mind to process music more efficiently. There is no time to sit there and waver on any one note, motif, or cue…you have to ‘get it done’. For the film work that I have done, and from my experience, one of the things I enjoy about it, is the long form of it. You are able to create music and develop certain melodic ideas, themes or motifs along with the characters and story.

How do you find switching between films and games – for example the relaxed vs. tight schedule etc.

Actually I never even thought of it as a ‘switching’ between. It’s just a matter of knowing the priorities and being able to balance your work. When I was working on the Disney cartoon, which required the 20 minutes a week, I was also at the same time working on two video games. The TV show would get the priority because of the weekly schedule, then when that was completed each week, usually finalized on Wed or Thurs., I would move over to the game stuff which usually kept me working through the weekend. Then on Monday I’d start all over again with the cartoon. I find it rather easy to move between writing for the different genres.

Working on films/games can be a time consuming and exhausting process at time – do you find personal life, and professional life hard to separate in periods when time is short and deadlines need to be met?

I don’t think it’s difficult to separate the two, I think its more or less have the time for both. When projects demand a lot of my time, i have no problems letting my personal life take a back seat. If during crucial schedule I yearn for family time I will usually work real late at night or through the night, just to have a few spare moments during the day for personal/family time.

What is your process for composing, especially if you are composing for a particular film/game?

Most of the time I try and tackle the main idea of the film/game/story with music. Whether it be a main melodic theme, a certain signature sound or a motif. I try first to encompass the idea and feel of the project in one piece of music, and then use that as a springboard for the remaining score. This all comes about from inspiration from screenshots or videos from a game, a screenplay or certain shots from a film. A lot if not most of the time, I like to rely heavily on concept art, or images from the film or game, of the story for inspiration. After all it is a visual medium.

How would you generally start off working on a game soundtrack – what would be the main steps you would go through?

Work on a game score, essentially gets started first with detailed discussions with the producer, lead designer and/or Audio Director of the game. They initially convey everything and anything they can about the game, and then usually provide a working music document, that lays out in front of me how much and what kind of music is required. After that, I try to get my hands on as much concept art, walk-through videos, and any possible game-play.

Have you had any large clients, and if so, who were they?

Interesting. What I may consider ‘large’ clients some one else may not. But I think my ‘biggest’ might have to be Disney for the work I did in tv. However, this was not a direct client of mine…I worked with a fellow composer, Kevin Manthei on TV shows of his, and he had many clients in the tv industry, and this one gig come about through him. For video games, I would have to say my biggest clients are currently Microsoft, Epic Games, Sega, Gearbox Software, and Bethesda.

What form of marketing/promotion do you use, if any, and which was the most popular?

I try to use all forms of promotion and marketing. Currently it is making constant calls and emails to producers, directors game developers, music editors etc etc. But I feel the strongest technique to have and be good at, is when a working relationship is started…you nourish the hell out of it, you become a great working partner and a friend. This has been a key to part of my success, is just nurturing existing working relationships. It usually spreads and develops into further clients and new relationships. Because EVERYONE moves around in this business, and if you were easy to work with in the past and people like your stuff, your name will be passed on.

What project have you enjoyed working on the most?

I think Gears of War will always occupy a special place in my repertoire of projects. As it was the first project I was able to utitlize a full orchestra for the score, and it was such a highly anticipated game. The fact that it was extremely successful is the cherry on top. I have received a lot of recognition for being a part of that game, and I am extremely grateful for that.

Have you ever had a client who was hard to deal with, and if so, what did they do and how did you deal with it?

Not one client was ever really hard to deal with. I mean even if you do have a great work dynamic with a client, there will always be bumps and road blocks in the creative process. On any one project everyone involved is extremely passionate about the final product, so it’s inevitable that when people are personally passionate about something, ideas are not ALWAYS going to meld perfectly. There will then be disagreement and conflicts within any development of creative material.

Without compromising anyone’s personal creative integrity I think it’s essential that everyone keep in mind , including composers like myself, its not about creating a personal stamp for yourself on the project, its about creating a final entity that EVERY ONE is happy with. So if problems do arise or a client becomes hard to deal with, a lot of times it might be easiest to set all personal creative preferences aside and try an alternative method.

Do you have any tips for people starting up in the music industry, on how to market themselves, get jobs, and get started off in general?

If you are really just starting out and have no clients of your own, I suggest getting in touch with composers who are currently making a living in the line of work you want to be a part of. And basically start off with asking them if you can fetch them coffee or sweep their floor or dust their equipment. That’s what I did. A lot of the times, they (working composers) will see that as a desire and passion to pretty much do ANYTHING to get in on the action.

You can usually work your way up from there and they might start letting you maintain their studio and eventually help out on work. When this happens you become a integral part of that composers’ machine. You become known to their clients as a reliable assistant and possible future composer.

Do you ever get writers block, and if so how do you deal with it?

I do get writer’s block. There are two ways I deal with it. One is just getting up and leaving the studio and doing something completely different to detach my mind from the process of writing music. Sometimes that helps…not all the time. The other thing I like to do is to just keep trudging through…just force your self to come up with something, anything. Usually if I make it over a so called hump, it will get the ball rolling. But the key there is just keep on writing or thinking, til the sweat almost comes dripping out until SOME sort of musical idea leaks out.

What challenges do you face when scoring for interactive media, in comparison to non interactive media (ie. films etc.)

When scoring for interactive media, you of course need to think that way. You need to be able to write music that at times is almost modular. That can be spliced up into different sections, elements, or different instruments. This way it lends it self to being handled and placed in varying order or looped in different ways through out the game. With film music, you think and write linearly.

Do you change your approach for each project (game), or do you stick with the same successful formula?

Usually it’s the same formula. But small things will change the process from project to project depending on what the story or game-play calls for.

Can you walk us through the Gears of War “finalscene” video – what creative direction/instructions were you given for this? Did you sketch out ideas for this, or did you have an idea in mind straight away? Did you come across and problems when scoring for it?

The funny thing about this scene is it was scored before the scene was given to me. Well… in a way.

All the music was written and recorded well before this scene was finished being put together. I think this was one of the last things that was done for the game. So I got the scene real late towards the end of the development, this of course left no time to go record additional music with a live orchestra.

So when I got a hold of the scene, I went through the entire set of cues we recorded for the game, and tried to find a cue that matched the feel, look and intensity of the scene. It almost seemed serendipitous when I dropped the track EAST BARRACADE ACADEMY at the start of the seen.

It blended beautifully and had all the right hits and transitions. It really caught me by surprise. I did add some string and brass layers over top of the track to thicken it and drive up the suspense a bit. But for the most part it was almost like the music was custom made for that scene, and I was really happy with it. When the scene hits the mark where the train is headed towards the collapsed bridge at around 1:11 the cue transitions into the 2nd half of the Gears Main Theme, which again seemed to fit perfect.

It was pretty cool, it seemed as if the cinematic director custom edited the scene to the music, which wasn’t the case…it all just fit perfectly together, making the last thing I worked on for Gears a cherry on top of an awesome experience, and I hope that passion comes through in the music.

Do you find that when you’ve finished a song, your sick of hearing it?

Actually that’s quite the opposite….well most of the time. Might be the small ego within me, that if I think a cue or piece of music came out really good, I will get a kick out of listening to it over and over. For a short period of time that is. Hah, I won’t spend hours on end listening to it loop over and over. Some times I will be like…wow…I did that? 😛 Other times YES I will be entirely sick of a piece of music that I can not listen to it again until months pass by. Or I cringe so much I can never enjoy it again. So I suppose it varies.

How long do you typically spend on one track?

Usually not long at all. I guess maybe I am so accustomed to strict deadlines that I am able to crank out certain music fast. Not sure. But here are times when it does take days to get a cue done. The average for games is a bout 2 – 3 minutes a day. But like I said for the tv show’s 2nd season I was up to 10 minutes of scoring in one day. So as with anything else in this line of work, it varies.

When creating a track, do you know how long it will be before starting it, or do you tend to just “see how it goes” and let the track make itself?

With video games, there is usually a required time set for each track created. But if the music is developing and happens to go over the required time, I usually let it develop to its fullest until the idea is complete, then see if it’s cool with the developer and then if not, edit it accordingly.

With films you generally know where you stand in terms of budget (5/10% of full budget) – in games is it different, or do you find it varies from project to project?

With out a doubt it varies from project to project.

Is there anything you wish you could do musically, but can’t now?

I wish I could play piano and guitar like I used to. My chops have become so bad, I am almost ashamed.

How would you define success?

My version of success, is being able to support my family by creating music.

What ultimately are your goals?

My ultimate goal is to live comfortably and support my family by creating music. To be able to be recognized as a film/tv composer along with being a successful video game composer

If you could change on thing in the music industry, what would it be and why?

For production companies to be more willing to take creative risks. To not rely heavily on the status quo and pop culture and stop making cookie cutter films, sequels and remakes. There needs to be more originality in this line of work.

What is your outlook on life and what motivates you?

I think the fear of failure is a big motivation. I also think one of my downfalls is, even though I am thoroughly happy working on everything I get to work on, I want more. I love entering new creative relationships and working on new original material. Having children now is great motivation in and of it’s self.

What are your other interests outside of music?

Photography is a huge hobby of mine, hanging out with my twin boys, and video games.

Over the past while, I’ve done a few things that I’ve found useful such as keeping notepads everywhere to jot things down. Have you picked up any habits over the years that you’ve found useful?

I can’t say there is any one thing that I have picked up over the years that I would call a habit or beneficial to my working technique.

If you were stuck on a desert island with 3 tracks, what would they be?

WOW, JUST THREE!?!??!!? I don’t know if I can do this one.

Ok, Miles Davis“So What”.

MetallicaMaster of Puppets,

and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite.

“What is the most stupid thing you have ever done?”

I don’t think I have done it yet. At least I don’t think so….You might want to ask my wife that question.

Images and videos are copyright and property of Kevin Riepl and Epic Games exclusively

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

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  • Uncle Gerry

    awesome ! nice to know somebody famous !

    best regards to all …. Gerry Nunan

  • ellen & don nicolato

    Very impressive. Great music to seranade us down here in mexico. Feliz ano nuevo.

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